It took nearly three hours of grueling tennis to choose between Redwood's Lora Gubler and Monique Sanchez for the West Yosemite League championship. In the end, they were only separated by two points.
Down 3-7 in the tiebreaker, Gubler rallied to beat Sanchez 11-9 for the title.
Sanchez sure made her work for it, but work has never been a problem for the 17-year-old junior. As her opponent and teammate returned shots with the consistency of a backboard, Gubler switched to a riskier style of play in an attempt to hit winners and become one herself.
"People are scared to hit winners because it might go out because you're hitting a lot harder and you're hitting a riskier shot," Gubler said. "I just had to take those risks and they worked out for me."
But that match wasn't her toughest moment of the year. Nor was playing five matches all in one sweltering day to win the Visalia Invitational.
Working hard and taking risks is the norm for the reigning WYL champ, so her toughest moments don't even come on the tennis court. They come well before the season begins during summer conditioning -- and the days after when she is "super sore."
Twice a week during the summer, the Redwood tennis team works with a personal trainer who emphasizes core strength and footwork. As Gubler describes it, they wear out their legs and then run a lap, repeating the process until they can't feel their legs.
"I've gotten heat exhaustion from it," she recalls. "I almost passed out. Some days you don't want to be there, but you know that it's worth it when the season comes around."
Worth it, indeed.
She went from not making the Visalia Times-Delta/Tulare Advance-Register All-Tulare County girls tennis first or second team to winning this year's player of the year award. It took knocking off last year's award winner in a marathon league final to do so.
But this didn't come completely out of the blue. The breakout star has been on pace towards 2012's lofty achievements for half a decade. In addition to the summer conditioning, Gubler also took private lessons with Mt. Whitney's tennis coach for the past five summers.
She improved the same amount each year. This summer was no different. It showed from Day 1.
"The first day that we came back to practice from the summer, I was one of the few players that actually worked during the off-season and everyone could tell," Gubler said. "(Coach) Rosemarie said to one player, 'Why did you hit that shot out.' She said, 'I haven't been playing this whole year like Lora has.' It really did show as soon as we got out there that I had made a huge improvement. Rosemarie was really impressed."
Gubler's relentless work ethic spills over into all areas of her life. She touts a 4.5 GPA in school, plays first chair base in the orchestra and serves as an officer in four different clubs. She also plays softball, and only this year gave up playing basketball in order to focus more on tennis.
"If I'm not doing something, I'm just bored. It bothers me," she said. "Everything that I do, I have to do it the best that I can do."
The only disappointment for Gubler this season was losing in the round of 16 at the Central Section singles tournament. She came in ranked No. 5 with her sights set on at least reaching the semifinals, but was bounced from the bracket by the No. 12 ranked player.
Gubler is mature enough to understand that she lost because she peaked too early in the season. Redwood faced top competition in the preseason, in Clovis and at the Visalia Invitational. Then the caliber of competition fell off, making it easier for Gubler to win matches. She never regained her top form.
"At the league finals, some of the people that I played and gave up a couple of games to, at the beginning of the season I would have not let up at all," Gubler said. "At the Central Section finals, if I played that girl at the beginning of the season, I would have killed her. She was a tough player. I could have done a lot better. My high point was at the beginning, not the end."
Gubler already has a plan in place to make sure she doesn't peak too early as a senior. It of course involves more work.
"I want to make the same amount of improvement or more going into next year," she said. "I'm most likely going to be No. 1 on the ladder, so I'll be playing much tougher competition."
Redwood is graduating five seniors from its girls tennis team, forcing Gubler to step into a major leadership role next year. She embraces it while already having plenty of leadership experience in her many other extracurricular activities to draw from, as well as three years of varsity experience observing how previous seniors have led the way.
With Gubler setting the pace, the rising underclassmen will have to work hard to keep up.
Dan Kukla is sports lead for the Visalia Times-Delta and Tulare Advance-Register. Follow him on Twitter @DBK_vtd. Email him at email@example.com. Call him at 735-3286.